The most striking picture I saw last week […] was of three young women walking head-to-head down the street in a suburb of Birmingham. It made me laugh out loud.[ …]
They were in black abayas, with thick overcoats on top and hijabs and niqabs over their heads leaving only a slit for the eyes. The message these garments send is not “charming” but aggressive: “Back off, you! Don’t touch me.” Ripped-up punk clothing sent the same deliberately aggressive signals in the 1980s. What made me laugh was that one of the young women was jabbing a two-fingered salute at the photographer, just in case he didn’t get the message.
All of the women were comfortably inside the 16- to 24-year-old demographic that got everybody exercised last week. One poll finding from the Policy Exchange think tank went right round the globe before breakfast: “37 per cent of British Muslims aged 16 to 24 would prefer to live under sharia law.” Yes, indeed – and if I was a 16- to 24-year-old Muslim woman living in Britain today, I’d be telling besuited pollsters the same thing. Sharia law – damn right! Stick that on your clipboard, Mr Policy Exchange.
I would also – I have no doubt – be glaring out, hard-eyed, from behind a niqab myself. Every chance I got. I would flaunt it at home in front of my (bareheaded) aunties and grannies; I would join my coolest best friends in wearing it to school. I’d only do it to annoy, because I’d know it teases.
Interestingly, this is pretty much what the Policy Exchange report, ‘Living Apart Together: British
Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism’ (pdf), has to say:
A key factor in wearing the hijab is undoubtedly the effect it will have on others. As the academic, Andrew Calcutt, observes wryly about the young Muslim women in his home of East London:
“There is knowingness, too: ‘I know you will find it shocking that I want to be identified by covering my face (or part of it), the bodily signature of individuality’. And of course, there is the sense of community which the wearer achieves by positioning herself away from the majority and there- fore in proximity to a small number of fellow- fashionistas, and by connecting to an apparently ancient tradition of true believers”.
Put more bluntly, the reverence of policy- makers towards the hijab as ‘religious’ tends to overlook the way in which is has become an exotic brand identity for many teenage girls who want to mark themselves out from the crowd. The shock factor of certain religious clothing and the way it draws attention is more akin to vanity than piety. It might be more appropriate to see the hijab as part of that long-established, counter-cultural tradition of bright mohicans and nose studs, rather than traditional religious observance. (pp 42-43)
The report itself, to which I may well return once I’ve had a chance to read and digest it, is a good deal more subtle and interesting than the headline shocker about 37% of young Muslims wanting to live under sharia law; of this finding, the report says
the majority of Muslims does not want sharia law and is opposed to its implementation in Britain. Among those who would like to live by sharia, more would prefer to see it reinterpreted than not. This is important to stress, because statistics about sharia can wrongly give the impression that Muslims who want to live by it are in favour of the most brutal punishments and strict regulations, which many non-Muslims feel alienated by.
At the same time, there is a significant strand of young Muslims who say they wish to live by sharia and who do not wish to see it reformed. What is the appeal of sharia law to these younger Muslims, who have had the benefits of living under a more liberal system? During the inter- views, the respondents who favoured sharia law explained it was superior because it expressed stronger moral codes and was harsher on criminals, although there was little appetite to impose it on the wider British population.
The appeal of sharia appears to stem partly from disillusionment with the legal system in Britain, and concern about declining values. A common refrain was that ‘criminals have it too easy in Britain’, a remark that seems to be less about carrying out the will of God, and more about lack of faith in the criminal justice system – probably a sentiment that would receive endorsement amongst many non- Muslims. Many of the respondents we spoke to seemed to prefer sharia because it was seen as an antidote to the corrupting values of the West.
One might, indeed, ask the same question about how to interpret these protestations of ‘wanting sharia law’ as the report’s authors ask about how to interpret the statistic that 74% of the young (16-24) Muslims agreed with the statement ‘I prefer that Muslim wome
choose to wear the veil’, given that so few actually do. Is it, they wonder, an expression of a general feeling rather than something they actually want to happen, or do they mean — as the report spectulates about interpreting veils as meaning headscarves — something rather different from the apparent meaning of the words?
Overall, the report argues that the radicalisation of some young British Muslims (the report’s authors quite rightly attack attempts to generalise about Muslims, young or otherwise) is a response to their own uncertainty about who they are; in rebellion against both their parents’ values and those of the wider society, some people find the certainties and sense of identity offered by a particular form of religiosity very reassuring.
As I say, I may well return to the report later, but in the meantime, I very much liked one of its recommendations:
Keep a sense of perspective. The obsession of politicians and the media with scrutinising the wider Muslim population, either as victims or potential terrorists, means that Muslims are regarded as outsiders, rather than as members of society like everyone else.